Wednesday, 30 November 2011

29 November 2011. Letter 61

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 29/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Good morning Mark! How do you do, Sue?

Are you bearing up? Are you struggling through? Good. Great! Well done! Best foot forward! On the double! From the top! Big smile, backs straight, tummies in, chests out, ready for the curtain to go up on another glorious day. Hear the greasepaint, Mark! Smell the crowd, Sue! They smell good, don’t they? I love the smell of a crowd in the morning: it smells like… victory!

The crowd in the evening, on the other hand… oh dear, Sue. The crowd in the evening – the crowd on your trains I mean, the crowd I have to share your trains with, shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek, arms and legs entwined, a tangle of protesting limbs and wrinkled noses…I’m not so keen on the smell of that crowd. They don’t smell like victory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! We’re not here to discuss the disgusting evening trains! Not today! We’re here to talk of the tardy morning trains!

Mark! Sue! I thought we had a deal! I thought we’d sorted all this silliness out! After your big announcement, I mean. After the exceptional mood you put me in yesterday, Mark. After the smile you put on my face, Sue! I thought that everything was alright! No more delays to me, no more letters to you. No more wasting of my time, no more wasting of yours.

I thought our symbiotic bond had been severed! I thought the umbilical cord of incompetence and childishness had been snipped! (I’m the childish one, Mark, I’m happy to admit that. Or perhaps childlike? Which is it, Sue? Childish for getting my kicks out of such a petty and puerile means of revenge every day… or childlike for actually expecting the trains to run on time in the first place? Childlike for naively expecting you to provide me with the service I’m paying for? Childish or childlike? It’s an interesting etymological* exercise, is it not?)

I thought, in short, that it was over. I thought you were going to make your train service, if not an enjoyable experience, at least something approximating a civilised one. I thought that, finally, after all these months, I’d be able to rely on one of your timetables for once in my sorry life.

Seven minutes, Mark. Four hundred and 20 seconds, Sue. Oh, I know, compared with yesterday’s monstrous half-hour horrorshow it seems like chump-change… but it’s still seven minutes. It’s still seven minutes of my time you were not supposed to take.

And, as I may have said before, all these seemingly minor delays stack up. (You must excuse me if I repeat myself, Mark; you must discretely avert your eyes if I regurgitate my metaphors, Sue – after 60 letters a little bit of repetition becomes inevitable. Plus: things rarely stick in my head for more than a week or two anyway. I’ve got a terrible memory, Mark. A memory like a… what’s it called? A thing. A, you know… a whatsit. Sieve, Mark! A thing like a sieve. A – where was I? Oh yes! I’ve got a thing like a thing. Memory of a goldfish!)

They stack up, Sue! Like discarded Roman pottery that will one day form a mighty Roman mountain! (I’ve definitely used that one before.) They wear down, Mark! Like drips in the desert that will one day gouge the Grand Canyon! (I’ve used that one before too.)

Hey! Guess what? A nice chap called Tim added up the delays for me Mark. He did the maths. He sent me an email. He made a spreadsheet! He added up all the minutes you’ve taken from me (against my will, Mark!) since I began writing to you, almost exactly five months ago. It’s quite an extraordinary thing, Mark. I was touched, Sue!

But anyway – do you know what the total came to? Do you know how much time of mine you’ve wasted since the end of June? No? Have a guess! Five hours? Ten hours?

I’ll tell you… next time. Unfortunately, due to unspecified problems of a deliberately vague nature (“congestion”, for example), this letter will be terminating at the next stop. You’re just gonna have to wait to find out the rest!


Au revoir!


*Etymological? Or entomological? Sue? I can never remember which word means what. One of them’s to do with the roots of language and the other with… I dunno, insects or something. Bugs. Creepy crawlies! What do you think, Sue? Did I get it right? Is it etymological? Or am I making a fool of myself? I’d hate to make a fool of myself, Sue! Wouldn’t you? I’d do almost anything to avoid making a fool of myself!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

28 November 2011. Letter 60

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 28/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 30 minutes.

Mark! Sue! How the blue bleezes are you? What’s strumming your ukuleles today? What’s banging your big bass drums? What’s squeezing your squeezeboxes? Get ready for a big long one! It’s a whopper today! Here it comes…

(I’m sorry for the obscurity of the greeting – I know you’re used to something more streetwise and slangy, something more zesty and zeitgeisty, something altogether more hip – and quite right too! We’re pretty hip cats, the three of us! Me and you, Mark, we’re funky-fresh and fly! And Sue’s no stranger to a buffalo stance! We’re down with the kids, right? Down with the kids, that's what I say! Down with the bleedin’ lot of ‘em!)

The fact is, I’m not feeling in a very streetwise mood today, Mark. I’m not feeling the word from the hood this morning, Sue (that rhyme works if you pronounce it in a Snoop Dogg-style southern-friend drawl: the woooord from the hooooood). You know why? Because it’s winter, my chilly-fingered chums, my tres froids amis! And whenever it gets to deep midwinter in the ancient valley of the Thames, my thoughts inevitably turn to folk music.

They do! I’m not joking, Mark! I’m listening to folk music right now! As I sit here and type, on one of your ancient trains, with nothing but the blasted heaths between Slough and Southall to distract me, as I mentally tick off the minutes of my once-promising life (I coulda been someone, Sue! I coulda been a contender, Mark!), the whole sorry experience is being soundtracked by the fiddly-dees and and fa-la-las of some good olde English folk music.

I love that crazy accordion stuff, Mark! I’m a sucker for a penny whistle, Sue! (But only in the winter time, mind. I’m not totally uncool.) I got my iPod winter folk playlist set up and everything – mostly a bunch of winsome Geordie chicks wailing beautifully about the sea, and a motley crew of bellowing Oxford boys making what sounds like zombiefied morris dancing music.

Quite a lot of the songs are about drowning, for some reason, Mark. A fair amount of them seem to touch upon themes of lost maidenhood, Sue. I’m not sure why this is: but either way it goes well with the season. Better than Snoop Dogg does, at any rate. Perhaps things are different in South Central LA.

So: you heard it first here, pop pickers! Punky-folky zombie morris music is the soundtrack du les winter jours! Plaintive Geordie sisters bemoaning the wildness of the moors and the wetness of the seas are the only way to sonically sum up the season! Get on board now, Mark! They’ll all be strumming along next year, Sue!

(Expect a lot of folk music to come, Mark. My favourite badger-themed weather website tells me that this winter is set to last a while yet. Maybe months! Perhaps until the spring even!)

My! What a long way of saying hello! My fingers fair ran away with me! (Or rather my 36 typewriting letter monkeys’ fingers ran away with them. Don’t forget, Mark: it’s the monkeys who write these things now! Blame the monkeys and their mad obsession with seasonally-themed mood music! Bad monkeys!)

So – seriously, how the dickens are you? Well? Hale? Hearty? Good! Excellent! Well done! Keep it up! That’s the important thing – keep the flag flying! Don’t let them get you down! We shall, as another kind of folk song goes, overcome!

But my monkeys digress. To business, Mark! Enough flim-flam! We’re serious men, and such merry-making demeans us and makes a mockery of our grave and sober natures.

You too, Sue! Though I wouldn’t dare to presume on the nature of your, er, nature. I wouldn’t dream of speculating on your relative seriousness or sobriety. I don’t feel I could – what with you never taking the time out of your busy schedule as Communications Director for First Great Western to actually communicate with me. I feel it would be presumptuous. But, for what it’s worth, you don’t feel like a serious and sober type to me. You seem like much more fun altogether. I hope you are, anyway. In fact, Sue, don’t tell me! I don’t want to spoil the surprise!

To business! Once more, we three meet again! Through thunder, lightning or in trains! When the hurly-burly’s done; when the battle’s lost and won, ere the train has been and gone!*

Mark! Sue! My train was delayed again! For a long, long time! It felt like an age, Mark! It felt like an aeon! It felt like an… era. Or error.

You totally went for it on Monday morning, Mark! None of your eight, 10 or 12 minute jabs, none of your six minute feints… not even those punishing body shots, those wincing uppercuts around the 20 minute mark…on Monday morning, as the fiddles reached a crescendo in my ears and a man sang something about whisky and drowning and lost maidenhood and my inner zombie morris dancer stamped his feet and rattled his bells and jigged along appreciatively, the olde English 8.06 locomotive from Oxford to London town stumbled, stuttered, sputtered and slid to a slow and shuddering stop.

Between Slough and Southall, Sue – somewhere near Maidenhead, Mark (which was a pleasing, if still ultimately annoying, coincidence, given the soundtrack) we stopped dead in our tracks.

And there, like a tantrumming toddler spread-eagled on the floor of Tescos (don’t ask, Mark – it’s just a phase the littl’un’s going through. One of many. And not even the most embarrassing. Please God I never have to tell you about his “willy time” trick. It’s mortifying) – like a tantrumming toddler with his trousers still thankfully on, we refused to budge. For longer than it seemed my patience could bear.

Not a jab, or an uppercut, or a deft one-two to the kidneys… but a 30-minute delay, Mark. A big, swinging, telegraphed haymaker of a delay. A mighty swing that sent me flying on to the canvas! (This is all a metaphor, of course, Sue. I feel my monkeys are getting the hang of these metaphors now! What do you think?)

It was like Rocky IV, Mark! Literally! I mean – metaphorically! It was exactly like a metaphor for Rocky IV! There’s me, Apollo Creed, in my fancy stars and stripes shorts, prancing about the ring, still buzzing from James Brown’s performance of Living in America (“station to station!”), winking to the ladies and showboating for the boys, dancing around the canvas… and standing dead centre, watching me with contempt in his eyes… there’s your train, Mark.

Your train was Ivan Drago, Mark! Huge, blond, flat-topped, pumped full of Soviet super-strength. Watching me prance and dance and ham it up for the crowd – until, as if in slow motion, one mighty metaphorical fist goes swinging slowly back and… WHAMMO! BOSH! WHEE! CRUNCH! Face down in the dust. Out for the count.

Or something like that, anyway. You know what I mean. Apologies if the monkeys got a bit carried away with the Rocky IV metaphor there. (Last night was Monkey Film Club – they watched the entire Rocky series back to back. They’ve been somewhat overexcited since. Next week they’re planning on an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. God help us all.)

Although, given that Rocky IV is essentially a clunky metaphor for the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe (and a rather pathetic fantasy of how the Americans might take it back) my monkeys can at least take comfort from the fact they’re in good company. If it's good enough for Sylvester Stallone, Mark, it's good enough for me and my monkeys. That's always been my motto.

What was I saying? Oh yes. Thirty minutes, Mark! What was all that about? Signal failures? Buckled points? Congestion? The annexing of Czechoslovakia?

For 30 long minutes I sat on your train, listening to some deeply uncool music, looking at the wastelands around Slough and Southall (so many, Mark! I had not thought Slough had undone so many!) and wondering just how I was going to write a letter long enough to waste 30 minutes of your time in return.

It’s no mean feat, Mark! Have you ever tried wasting someone’s time for that lo—actually, what am I saying? Of course you have! You’re an old hand at it! Dude – it’s what you do! Day in, day out, Mark! Wasting my time, morning and evening. And best of all, having me pay for it too! Nice trick, Mark! Sweet scam, Sue! You must give me some tips sometime. You must tell me how you’ve managed to pull that one off.

But I forget myself. Congratulations are in order! Your last letter was lovely, Mark! Better than lovely, it was splendid! It was brilliant! It was… exciting! You had a big announcement!

(I’ve just read that paragraph back to myself: sorry if it sounds sarcastic, It wasn’t supposed to sound sarcastic. It was supposed to sound excited. It was meant to sound puppyishly enthusiastic. It was meant to convey the same kind of optimism and energy as, for example, one might see displayed by 36 monkeys enjoying Sylvester Stallone battering the bejaysus out of Dolph Lundgren and thereby metaphorically liberating untold millions of oppressed Slavs.)

It was not meant to sound sarcastic, Mark. Your big news is indeed excellent news! More carriages is a good thing! A great thing! I’m all for it! The thought of actually getting a seat for every journey is amazing! Revolutionary!

Up till now, the idea of paying around £450 a month with no guarantee of ever actually sitting down just seemed the way things had to be to ensure that you chaps made enough profit for yourselves…

So yes! Yes to more carriages, Mark! Well done! I wholeheartedly approve! And I would also like to say thankyou. Thankyou for investing in the service you’re providing! Thankyou for taking steps to ensure more of your paying customers get the seat they’ve paid for every now and then. Huzzah! Hoorah! Hoopla!

Now is the winter of my discontent made glorious summer by this extra-carriage talk!

And let’s hope this is just the start, eh? Let’s make this a bright start! Let’s make this big announcement the first of many, many other wonderful big announcements! What do you think, Mark? Can we do it? Yes – as both Bob the Builder and President Nixon believed – we can!

I’m with Bob, Mark! I’m with Tricky Dicky, Sue! A brave future awaits – and I shall be there to greet it. I shall be on the platform with the other commuters, inching my way closer to the spot where I think the door might be, trying to make myself bigger so as to shoulder my way on first, pretending we’re all in it together but knowing that when it comes down to it, it’s every man for himself seat-wise…

I’m there, Mark! Along with all the other commuters, turning our faces to the light, shielding our eyes against the glory of the brave new world that awaits! I can’t wait! I literally cannot wait!

It’s a great start, Mark! It’s good work! And if it was to be followed by trains running on time and to their promised schedules, if it were to mean no more awkward excuses for turning up to work late most days, if it were to mean no more missing bedtime stories because the kids have already fallen asleep by the time I get home most nights… well, if that was to happen, Mark, I would be the happiest man in Coach C.

It would mean no more letters to you, Mark! It would mean the end of our beautiful friendship, Sue! No more wasting my time, no more of me wasting your time! I’m happy just thinking about it!

Au revoir!


*Not bad, eh, Sue? Did you like it? It has a certain poetic frisson, no? “When shall we three meet again…” It’s from a play I’m writing – it’s the first lines of the play. I’m calling the play: MacDom.

It’s about a ticket inspector (MacDom) who meets these three weird sister chicks trying to pass through the ticket barriers using an off-peak super-saver return during a period when only saver-returns or anytime-returns are allowed, and in exchange for letting them off having to purchase a full-price ticket, they promise him that one day he’ll be station manager of all Scotland.

Anyway… I won’t spoil the whole plot for you, but suffice to say his wife’s a bit of an uppity madam, there’s a spot of trouble with an overkeen young train conductor called Macdandruff, a bit more prophesising, and it all ends in tears. Except for Macdandruff, who makes a wood move to Dunsinane (don’t ask how) and generally leads on quite a bit. I’ll be sure to let you have further extracts as and when I write them…

Monday, 28 November 2011

A 'big announcement' from Mr Mark Hopwood!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails. On 17 November a problem coupling two trains at Paddington held us up. On 18 November, there was a points failure and on 21 November the delay was caused by traction issues. Every delay is a concern and we never lose sight of the importance of operating a punctual railway. I am sorry we keep letting you down but there is a tremendous amount of work going on and improving performance really is our priority.

In my previous email, I mentioned we'd be making a big announcement and on Tuesday we were able to share our plans to increase our capacity across our network. Here is a link to our website which explains the extra rolling stock we have managed to secure and our plans for it over the coming year. I hope you will agree that this is really good news and shows that we do work hard to bring about improvements to the service we provide.

Yours sincerely

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

22 November 2011. Letter 59

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 22/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 17 minutes.

Mark! Sue! How does the morning find you? Do you greet the day with hope and joy and with hearts lifted by dreams of limitless opportunity and infinite potential? Do your souls sing like birds in the brave morning light?

Or are you grumpy snooze-button merchants, throwing out surly hands to punch the alarm clock into submission, to silence the desperate clarion call for another weary day, to stifle the grim reveille that drags us from our sweet slumbers and into the gloom and trudge of another long and pointless period of consciousness?

Life is very long, Mark, when you’re lonely. Morrissey said that, as you well know. (You remember Jim Morrissey don’t you, Mark? We’ve discussed him before. Lead singer with chirpy cockney bubblegum pop outfit Jim Morrissey and the Swinging Smiths? Had a string of Stockhausen-Waterman produced hits in the 70s? Famously played their last gig on a rooftop in Jimmy Savile Row? Guitarist found dead in a toilet in Memphis, Tennessee, stuffed to the gills with squirrel burgers and barbiturates? Drummer only had one arm? Bassist sacked to be replaced by Sid Vicious? That’s right! That’s the one! Jim Morrissey! Had a well-publicised affair with Kylie Minogue! Enjoyed a Britpop chart battle with Oasis! Won the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest! Replaced Cheryl Cole as a judge on X Factor USA! Jim Morrissey! Good old Jim Morrissey!)

Well, let’s forget all about Jim Morrissey and his ‘life is very long’ codswallop, Mark! What does Jim Morrissey know about the price of eggs anyway? We must be of an altogether more positive bent! Not fare well, but fare forward! That should be our mantra.

(And besides – even if life is very long, we’re not lonely, are we? We’ve got each other! Mark, Sue: I’ve got you, babes! I’ve got you to hold my (metaphorical) hand! I’ve got you to understand! Oh! We happy three!)

So not fare well, but fare forward, Mark! Whether you’re a jump outta bed and greet the morning’s glory with a wide smile and a quick half-dozen jumping jacks kinda guy, or even if you’re an angry-haired, sluggish-limbed and snappy-mouthed Suzy McSnap first thing in the morning kinda gal… positivity is the thing.

It’s what the public expects, Mark. It’s all part of the job, Sue. Not fare well, but fare forward! Hide your pain and your despair, push down those feelings deep inside yourselves, bury them… and prepare instead a face to meet the faces that you meet. Keep smiling kids, because nobody likes a sourpuss.

Okay? Good. Great! Well done! Now we’re all feeling brilliant about ourselves, we can get on with the business in hand.

The trains, Mark! Les trains, Sue! Die zuge! Los trenes! I treni! The very symbol of an industrialised nation, dudes! The huffing, puffing, chuffing, steamy chariots of the Gods! Comites ire sicut vapor! (That’s Latin, Sue – the official language of Ancient Greece. It means: Proceed in the manner of a steamy chariot. You may want to use that as a slogan, as a motto, as something to project in 20-foot high letters across the fa├žade of the First Great Western Nerve Centre – hey, feel free! Go for it! You can have that one on me, just for old time’s sake!)

God knows I love a train, Mark! Lord knows I can’t resist a great big shiny engine, Sue! I’m a sucker for that shizzle! I spend an extraordinary amount of time and money expressing that love, Mark. I express that love by sitting on trains wondering why they’re not going as fast as they should be. Or standing on trains wondering the same. It’s like a drug, Sue! Might as well face it, I’m addicted to trains!

But sometimes, Mark, every now and then, Sue (well, about three or four times a week at the moment, to be honest) I grow a little weary of trains. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. If pleasure remains, Mark, does it remain a pleasure?

Let me explain. Let me fill you in. (Just the facts, Sue!) Yesterday morning, my train to work was delayed by 17 minutes. Again! I know! Seventeen minutes, Sue, during which I pondered the fog around the outer edges of London town. Seventeen minutes, Mark, during which I listened to Jim Morrissey and the Swinging Smiths and turned my mental gaze inwards to address the gnawing, nibbling, nit-picking little questions that seem to worry away at my consciousness.

Questions like: why do ducks duck? Why do flies fly? Why do bees be? Big questions, Mark. Important stuff, Sue!

Questions like: what’s happening in Egypt? Is the Arab Spring uncoiling, or being resprung? Questions like: where is the Occupy movement going? Questions like: how will the people of France and Germany respond to the Euro bailout plans and for how long will they be happy to allow their taxes to be spent on rescuing fare-dodging Graeco-Roman types by the Mediterranean and Aegean seas? Fanciful stuff, Mark. Trivia and tittle-tattle, Sue!

I also pondered questions like: why can’t I ever get to work on time? Or home from work on time? Questions like: is this all worth it after all? These lost hours and wasted days, these things I do for money, while the dregs of my best years dribble away like so much cold coffee down the drain? Questions like: is that the weakest simile I’ve ever written?

But that’s what listening to Jim Morrissey and the Swinging Smiths does to you, I guess. All this introspection – it can’t be healthy, can it, Sue? Mankind cannot bear very much reality, Mark! And neither can we!

Tomorrow I shall listen to something altogether more upbeat. Something like Jimmy Curtis and the Jammin’ Joy Divisions. Or Jimmy Radio and the Dancin’ Radioheads. Or, I dunno, Leonard Cohen.

But I digress! Again! We’re not here to discuss the contents of my iPod, or the central dilemmas of twenty-first century existence! We’re not here to talk about the collapsing European economy or the troubles in Tahrir Square! I’m not paying good peanuts for 36 typewriting monkeys to discourse on philosophy, politics and pop music!

I’m paying those monkeys to pen pithy, precise and pointed letters of complaint, Mark! I’m shelling out for those simians to rattle off razor-sharp prose! I’m employing those apes for a purpose, Sue! They’re all here, chained to my factory floor, yammering and jammering and jabbing at their typewriters purely for the purpose of pointing out to you lads just how it feels to have your time wasted, day in, day out, week after week, month after long month.

That’s what we’re all here to do, Sue! That’s what these letters are about, Mark! We’re not here to be educated, or elucidated, or entertained! Heaven forbid! We don’t want to learn anything, do we Mark! We don’t want to emerge from this process wiser, better informed or in any way enlightened! No sir!

We wouldn’t want to learn, for example, that there is a hill outside Rome – a big hill, mind, a proper hill – made entirely out of the broken shards of ancient pots. Those centurions and dodecahedrons, Mark, those toga-sporting, Christian-baiting, civilisers of the world, Sue: they threw out so many old olive oil pots they made a whole hill out of them! You can walk on it today, Mark! It’s… crunchy!

We also wouldn’t want to learn, for example, the true meaning behind the Temptations classic ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’. It’s about Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, Mark – and how he abandoned his hometown musicians in Detroit and skedaddled to Los Angeles – taking the Jacksons and the Supremes with him and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. It’s 12 of the most bitter minutes ever committed to vinyl, Mark. It’s brutal.

We wouldn’t want to learn these things, Sue! I’m not paying my monkeys to entertain or educate you, Mark! What kind of monster would that make me? There’s laws against that kind of thing, you know! What next? Bear baiting? Badger boxing? Kangaroo fiddling? These things may be acceptable on the continent, Mark, but I’m having none of it. None of it!

Where was I? (I mean, where were the monkeys?) Ah yes. The trains! The trains, Mark! My monkeys are dying of boredom on your persistently late trains, Mark! Life is very long, Mark! Let’s not make it feel any longer, eh? Not fare well, but fare forward!

Au revoir!


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

21 November 2011. Letter 58

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 21/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: eight minutes.

Mark! Sue! Can I get a witness? I said can I get a witness! Feet don’t fail me now! Gotta get up on the good foot! Get up, Mark! Get on the scene, Sue! Like a…

Good lord, what happened there? I do apologise! For a minute back then, Mark, I got my correspondence in a twist! I got my letters mixed up! I think I thought I was penning my fortnightly missives to the editor of Funkological Review (the premier choice for the discerning funk and soul record collector)!

I think I thought that, rather than writing my usual tightly-focused, carefully thought-through and extensively-edited letters of complaint to you and Sue, I was rattling off another altogether more boyishly enthusiastic thousand words to Mr Marcus Funk, Managing Director of Funkalogical Review and the only man funkier than the funky chicken. (Not forgetting Ms Suzy “You Know She Got” Soul, Communications Director for the British Funkalogical Society and the only woman more soulful than a vat full of chicken soup for the soul.)

Please accept my sincerest. I’m mortified. Literally! Though to be fair, Mark, it’s an easy mistake to make, right? You betcha! Gotta get up to get down! It’s gotta be bad to be good!

Except, of course, when it comes to matters outside the remit of the Funkalogical Review. In those matters, Mark, being bad is very rarely an indication of quality.

For example - let’s pluck a subject at random, let’s pick, ooh, I don’t know, running a train service. Let’s pick the example of running a train service for profit. In those circumstances, Mark, it’s not gotta be bad to be good. It’s gotta be good to be good! It’s gotta be efficient to be efficient! It’s gotta deliver the service it promises to, er, deliver the service it promises! Anything less than the best, as rapper/raconteur/renaissance man and one-time reserve keeper for Real Madrid Vanilla Ice, observed, is a felony.

Let’s not argue with Vanilla Ice on this one, Mark. Let’s just accept his word as law, Sue. He is a swift and ruthless opponent, after all, and the man who famously “cooked” rival MCs “like a pound of bacon”. I don’t want to be cooked like a pound of bacon, Mark!

So: we are agreed. When it comes to running a train service, quality is our common goal. Excellence, even! Why not? Excellence of service, excellence of customer service. What we want to do is run the trains on time, every time (you can use that, Sue). And on those blue moon days, those snow-in-July days, those rare occasions when our train service is not excellent, we want to listen and respond and take on board (on board, Sue! Yeah! Geddit? On board? On b— oh, whatever) all the complaints of those affected and respond to them in an open and transparent manner! That’s what we want to do! That’s who we are! We are First Great Western! Say my name! Say my name, baby!

Right? Right!

And, to be fair, that’s what you do with me, isn’t it? You write back, Mark! And you, Sue, you… well you don’t write back as such, but you help! Of course you help, Sue! You’re a big help! Well done! It’s great you write back, Mark! (It’s great you help, Sue!) As I’ve said before, it makes my day.

The only thing is, lads, I had a devil of a job finding your email addresses to write to in the first place. I had to use my super soaraway scooping skills! I had to use the lessons I’ve learned from 15 years grubbing around Grub Street! In short – I had to guess.

Mark, Sue, you have no idea how many innocent people I emailed before I stumbled across the correct email addresses for you both. (That was how, in fact, I first made contact with the Funkalogical Society of Great Britain.)

Not every disgruntled passenger is as persistent as me, Mark. Not everyone has my razor sharp tabloid skillz, Sue. What these people need is some sort of web-based application whereby they could post their complaints, have those complaints forwarded on to you and then have both complaint and response posted back on to the web for all to see and be enlightened by!

Wouldn’t that be splendid? Sue – as a connoisseur of communication, as someone only too willing to embrace the latest advances and improvements in communication technology, such an idea must thrill you, no? The possibilities for enhanced communication must keep you awake at night!

If only there were such a thing!* Because if there were such a thing, then as a forward-thinking, customer-focused company who only wants to provide the best service you possibly can, I imagine you’d jump at the chance to get involved!

Of course you would, Mark! We can but dream that one day such a thing might exist!

And on that happy note…

Au revoir!


*Oh! Wait up! There is such a thing! I believe it’s called fixmytransport! Alright! Come on Mark! Let’s go, Sue! Let’s get into it! Get up! Get on up! Isn’t this exciting!

PS - Did I mention my train last night was delayed? Sorry. Eight minutes. It was eight minutes delayed. Have a nice day now!

Monday, 21 November 2011

18 November 2011. Letter 57

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 18/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 17 minutes

What ho, Mark! What’s the view, Sue? What do we see, when we open the (metaphorical) blinds and peer, bleary-eyed and cloudy of brain, through the glass and into the wide world today?

I don’t know about you lads, but I’m not seeing much. Are you seeing much, Mark? How about you, Sue? What’s out of the window of your time-machine today? How are those relative dimensions in space? Is it a pretty view, Sue? Or are you struggling, too?

I’m struggling, Sue. I'm just not seeing much, today. My eyes are bleary, my brain is cloudy… but it’s not that. Not today. (My eyes are bleary, my brain is cloudy, as standard, Sue. I’m usually all bleared up, I’m generally clouded, until at least after the working day is over. It pretty much takes until I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here comes on before I really get into my stride for the day. I get around an hour of clear thought a day, I’d say. An hour I spend laughing at kangaroo testicle-swallowing has-beens. It’s a life, Mark! It’s a living, Sue!)

But that’s not it! Not today! Today even the brightest and the bestest of us are struggling to see. Today even the perkiest and most opthalmically-perfect of us are having trouble focusing. And do you know why?

Winter has come, Mark! The seasons have turned, Sue! That Indian Summer we were enjoying so much (you remember the Indian Summer, don't you? Long, languorous, lazy days spent (metaphorically) punting on the (metaphorical) streams, Mark! Sweet, half-remembered dreams of hazy bliss, Sue, Elizabeth and Leicester beating oars! The stern was formed a gilded shell, Sue! Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe!)

And now it’s over. Our Indian Summer – gone! The frosts return to Rajasthan, Mark. The mighty Ganges freezes over once more, and all the subcontinent prepares to hibernate for another nine months.

And here, in England, there comes the fog. Little darlin’. And I say: it’s not alright. Yoko Ono was wrong, Sue! (I know what you’re thinking, Sue, but you’re also wrong. Here Comes The Sun may have George Harrison’s songwriting credit on it, but what most people don’t realise is he lifted the tune, note for note and almost word for word, from the Yoko Ono track, Here Comes The Fog. If you’re of a vinyl-collecting bent you can find it on her 1923 EP Strangeways Here We Come. Track three. Anyway, Mark, she successfully sued Harrison for copyright infringement – and he was forced to hand over John Lennon in lieu of royalties. True story.*)

The fog man cometh, Mark! The mists roll in from the sea! It’s a whiteout! And, as old Billy Giles will tell you, that can only mean the official start of winter. Brrr!

How is winter viewed by les grandes fromages at First Great Western, Mark? How do the changing seasons affect daily operations at the FGW Operational Nerve Centre, Sue?

Are the crack climactic response team primed and ready? Are the analysis experts on standby? Have the criteria for what constitutes the correct or incorrect kinds of snow/leaves/rain/frost/fog/air been drawn-up, reviewed, updated, laminated and blu-tacked up above the photocopying machine? Are the TVs showing the Weather Channel 24/7? Are the radios tuned in to Weather FM? Are you all feverishly refreshing your favourite weather websites? (I like a website called 'Weatherbadger', as it happens, Mark. Mostly for the badgers, though occasionally for the weather too.)

Either way, and whatever your favourite animal-themed weather website might be, I do hope you're prepared for winter! I hope you’re approaching the season with due diligence! I also hope, while you’re at it, that you remember to turn off the air-conditioning in your trains quite soon. I was freezing on Friday morning, Mark! It was quite literally colder within than without!

Ah! That reminds me! The real reason we’re here! We’ve not come together to talk about the weather, have we Mark? We’ve not all taken time out of our super-busy, ever-so-productive, high-powered and action-packed days to chinwag about climate change! We're here, once again, to address the problem of the trains. The perennial problem, Mark!

On Friday morning, I am sorry to say, my train to Paddington was delayed. Delayed, Mark! Can you credit it? Would you believe it? Would you, in fact, Adam and Eve it? What's that you say? You would? Now why would that be?

Seventeen of your earth minutes - that was the sad tally on Friday morning. Seventeen of my earth minutes! Seventeen minutes of my life. Seventeen minutes I could have spent otherwise engaged in some useful activity - who knows, some life-changing activity, Mark! Something cosmic, Sue! Anything could have happened in those 17 minutes! And now... and now nothing will. They are lost and gone forever. I will never see them again.

I'm beginning to wonder what I might have made of my life, Mark, if all these wasted minutes were added up and laid end to end. If I were to receive them back like some kind of tax rebate at the end of the year. How many hours would they come to, Mark? (I could add them up myself, but, to be honest, I can't be bothered.) There have been 56 letters since June 28 alone! Fifty-seven if you include this. Fifty-seven chunks of my time you have taken away in the time it's taken for summer's glory to fade into the first fogs of winter.

Do you think that come June 28 again they might add up to 24 hours, Mark? Or 48? Or more? I think there's a pretty good chance of that. I think there's a decent chance that you're stealing at least a day a year from me. Put it like that, Mark, and it begins to sound outrageous, doesn't it? It begins to sound disgraceful.

As winter comes, Mark, as the days dwindle and the mists rise, I don't want to be wasting my life in an unnecessarily air-conditioned train. I don't want to have to waste your time with these ridiculous letters. But then you know that. Of course you know that! And believe me, Mark - no matter how hard it is for you to read these things, no matter how tedious and trite you find wading through this trash to be... rest assured that it's hurting me more than it's hurting you.

I've had to employ a team of simian letter-writers Mark. I've got a factory full of 'em, churning out this stuff for you. It's like Beneath the Planet of the Apes in there! My inspiration ran out months ago - I've had to take on a good three-dozen typewriting monkeys, bashing out the old 'Dear Mark and Sue's, day in, day out, 24/7, three-six-five. It's the only way I can keep up, Mark! It's the only way I can stay on top of it all, Sue! And I don't mind telling you, it's costing me a fortune in peanuts and flea-spray. I may start to invoice.

And on that note... I'm afraid there's not been too much focus to today's complaint, has there? Has it been a bit up-and-down, Mark? Blowing a bit hot and cold, Sue? Sorry about that. Blame the fog. Blame the cold. Blame Network Rail. Blame those stupid monkeys. And I promise, from the bottom of my heart, from the heart of my bottom, that I'm committed to providing you with a better letter-writing experience in future. Or at least the monkeys are.

Au revoir!


*Obviously this is not a true story, Sue. Be sensible.

A new reply! With some BIG numbers in it!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your emails and I apologise for the delays on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, one of the trains ahead of yours had a technical problem. This was quickly rectified but we were disappointed that it still caused us a disruption. On Thursday, an earlier train left the depot late, which held up a number of others.

There is no lack of willingness within the rail industry to invest in the infrastructure and service on the part of and this includes First Group and First Great Western, Network Rail and the Department for Transport. One of the most significant investments that we have made during the course of our current franchise, was spending £80 million on our High Speed Trains Fleet to make them more reliable. Network Rail are spending £850 million on the remodelling of Reading station along with the work already completed to redouble the Cotswolds line. I am also pleased to say that we will be making a very important announcement next week in regard to our rolling stock.

Running a reliable railway at the same time we are trying to reconstruct it is challenging but we're looking towards the longer term benefits that the significant level of investment that is being made will bring.

In terms of our Public Performance measurements, reliability and punctuality are two entirely different things. Our statistics for 'reliability' describe the number of trains we've run (i.e not cancelled), against the number of trains time-tabled to run. I hope that explains.

Yours sincerely


Friday, 18 November 2011

17 November 2011. Letter 56

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 18.51 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 17/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 10 minutes.

Mark! Sue! Morning has broken! Just like the first morning! Blackbird has spoken! Just like the first bird!

Sue - how goes the trip through the temporal vortex? Where are you? Or more accurately, when are you? Tell us, Sue, what sights have you seen? Have you seen your shadow at morning striding behind you? Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you? Frisch weht der Wind, Sue! With all of history as your playground thanks to your time-travelling leave of absence, what have you chosen to do? Why not see that first morning, Sue? Why not hear that first blackbird?

Why not make like Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC (great film, Mark - and the first film to be made entirely with digital technology by a young Steven Spielberg, too. Screenplay by Tarantino. Score by Girls Aloud. What a line-up!)? Why not travel back to a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth and woolly mammoths did battle with giant skeleton armies and we all hung out in fur bikinis and communicated mostly through the medium of grunting? That would be a sight worth seeing, wouldn't it? That would be a holiday worth taking! I'm picturing it right now!

Or you could just go to Marbella again. Whatever.

But (once more!) I'm getting distracted! I'm deviating and detouring! I'm getting derailed, dudes! We're not here to discuss Sue's fur-bikini'd battles with the Stegosauruses (Stegosauri?). We're here to discuss the trains, Mark! Let us never forget: trains is all. And all is trains. In the beginning was the word, Mark (Not that word! Not The Word, seminal 90s music show starring Terry Christian!) And the word was "trains". At least as far as we're concerned it was. Let there be trains, Mark! And we see that the trains are good!

Or, er, not.

The trains are not good.

I write these words on a train in the morning, Mark. Friday morning at nine am, as John, Paul, George and Ringo almost had it. (Ringo's our favourite, isn't he Mark? It's gotta be Ringo! John had the genius, Paul had the talent, George had the looks, the cool, the insouciance... but Ringo! Ringo was the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine! Ringo wins! Ringo owns that pop culture shizzle. You can keep your Working Class Heroes and your Here Comes the Suns and your clever vaudeville-referencing middle bits from A Day In The Life... because nobody - nobody, Mark - said the words "fat controller" quite like Ringo!)

It's Friday morning, it's nine am, my train is currently taking a breather somewhere near Southall, and I'm going to be late again. But that's a story for another day and another letter... because today I am tasked with transcribing the tale of last night's travel.

Last night, Mark, I was delayed. I know. I know, dude! I'd huffed and puffed and blown through the tubes to reach Paddington Station in time to catch the fabled 18.51 - and still I was delayed. Somewhere near Reading, Mark, we stopped. For 10 minutes. And so, today, as the sun struggles above the slurry and despair of Southall in the morning, I am here, once again, to waste your time back.

I know what you're going to say! You're going to say sorry! (Quite right too - and thankyou for saying sorry. It is appreciated.) But I also know that somewhere, lurking at the back of your mind like a particularly naughty child, will be the thought: 'it's only 10 minutes. And the last delay was only seven minutes. And the other recent delays have likewise only been 13 minutes and seven minutes. These aren't so bad. These delays that you've got mapped out - they're nothing much to shout about'.

Bad thought, Mark! Dismiss that thought! Send that thought to bed without any supper!

These 10 minute delays, Mark, these seven minute and 13 minute delays... they accumulate. They wear one down. They... sap. They're sapping me, Mark! Let me illustrate with a pithy and well-placed pugilistic analogy. Let us strip to our shorts, tape up our hands and indulge ourselves in the noble language of the ring!

These sapping under-15 minute delays, Mark - they're like jabs. Quick, sharp, painful. Left! Left! Right! Left! Snap! Oof! Durr! Ouch! They're not knockout blows, Mark, they're not the 20 minute uppercuts, the big swinging half-hour roundhouses... but they add up. They cause damage. Land enough of them, Mark, and you'll have me on the ropes. You'll have me reeling. You'll have me needing attention at the bell.

I'm a big man, Mark, but I'm out of shape. And all this jabbing - it's getting through my guard. It's draining me, Mark! I'm sapped! I'm a roped dope!

Do you watch the Simpsons, Mark? You do! Well done! Have you seen the episode of the Simpsons where Moe the barkeep talks about his boxing career? He started out as 'Kid Gorgeous', Mark - then after a few too many jabs was renamed 'Kid Presentable'. And then 'Kid Gruesome' - and finally, after 40 knockouts, 'Kid Moe'. That's me, Mark. I'm about at the Kid Presentable stage.

Don't make me Kid Gruesome, Mark! Don't make me Kid Moe! Stop hitting me! For the love of God, please stop hitting me!

Oops! There's the bell! That's yer 10 minutes. Ding ding! Here comes the girl in the swimsuit and stilettos and the "Round 56" sign! And I'm off to spit into a bucket.

Au revoir!


Thursday, 17 November 2011

17 November 2011. Letter 55

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 17/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Mark! Sue! There you are! (Well, not you, Sue - you're out in the fourth dimension somewhere, hurtling through space and time... is it like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Sue? Are you assembling noted historical figures from, um, history, for help with your next Communications Brainstorming Session? Are you mispronouncing them to amusing affect? I bet that's what's happening! I bet that's exactly what you're up to!)

Anyway. Mark! There you are! How are you? No, really. How are you?

Oh Mark! Mark! Don't say you're 'good'. Never say you're 'good'! Not unless you're asked about the state of your morality. I was not asking about your morality, Mark. I don't care if you're good, or evil, or even neutral (or Lawful Chaotic, or Chaotic Neutral or Neutral Good or whatever... depending on whether or not you're a 20-sided-dice-rolling ubernerd, of course). What you mean is you're well! Well, Mark (or unwell) - not good!

I'm sorry Mark. Do I sound crabby? Do I sound pedantic, pernickity and precious? Well, perhaps I do, a little. But it's the little things, isn't it? The little things that blight our lives, that gnaw away at our otherwise sunny existences.*

For example: there is a meeting room at work, Mark. And it has been renamed, no doubt by someone thinking "outside the envelope" and in a "blue sky environment" and after some deeply pointless and utterly money-wasting communications brainstorming session, the "Da Vinci Room".

C'est idiotique! as Leonardo Da Vinci himself exclaimed after the critics' initial wary assessment of his now famous Sunflowers painting. Das ist dumbkopf! as Leonardo Da Vinci himself remarked after his initial sketches for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were dismissed as "too full of cherubs" by Pope John Paul II. And he'd be right, too!

The point is, Mark - Da Vinci means: From Venice. It is not his name! It means nothing! It's just where he's from. It's just where he used to hang with the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Donatello, Michaelangelo and Raphael, in case you'd forgotten. Heroes in a half-shell!)

The Da Vinci Room? They mean the Leonardo Room, Mark. His name was Leonardo. Vinci was just his hood. (Vinci and that New York sewer with all the pizzas and the kung-fu rat and that hot TV journalist in the jumpsuit. What was her name? April? April O'Neil! Ah. April O'Neil, Mark! As a growing lad, with all the growths one expects, I had many an impure thought about April O'Neil! Even if she was a cartoon. Especially, maybe! After all - look at Betty Rubble. Look at She-Ra. Look at Jessica Rabbit. Look at Tank Girl! A girl can be a cartoon and still be totally hot, Mark. Although, on reflection, Tank Girl may be a little too fierce. But, y'know, after a drink, what the hell, right?)

The point is: if you're going to name a room after Leonardo Da Vinci, Mark, you call that room the Leonardo Room.

Even the writers of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles understood this, Mark. Is it too much to expect the people who rename meeting rooms at the most powerful media organisation in the world to understand it too?

Oh dear, I feel I'm ranting again. Am I ranting again? Do I rave? (As the vicar said to the DJ.) Are these quibbles of mine in any way important?

Well... yes. Because it's these seemingly minor examples of stupidity and ignorance that allow the greater, willful, malicious and cynical use of doublespeak by the Communications Departments of massive-profit making organisations to slip through unnoticed. Isn't it?

For example, Mark: there is a sign in Oxford train station at the moment. This sign claims - this sign trumpets! - that First Great Western has a 99.3 per cent reliability of service for trains between Oxford and Paddington. Ninety-nine point three per cent reliability, Mark! Impressive! Sounds like a pretty darn reliable service, that Oxford-Paddington service!

But then, surely, thought I, all of these letters I've written to you prove that to be an outright lie.

Of course it is. The Oxford-Paddington service is not reliable, Mark - we both know that. And so it turns out that, according to your apparent arbitrary rewriting of the rules of the English language, a scheduled, advertised service is only deemed unreliable if the train is cancelled.

That's not 'unreliable' Mark! That's 'non-existent'! Unreliable is when the train - and you may want to read this bit slowly - can not be relied on. To do what it's supposed to do. As in: get the people who've paid for tickets to the places it's supposed to in the time advertised. You can't just go redefining the word 'reliability' to suit the spin of your own statistics!

Or am I wrong? Do people ask after your moral stance rather than your health? Is Leonardo Da Vinci better referred to by his neighbourhood than his actual name? And does 99.3 per cent reliability mean that delayed trains don't actually count when trumpeting your status as Train Operator of the Year?

Oh! Look at the time! I've used up my allotted seven minutes of your day, Mark! And I didn't even have the chance to tell you about the super-exciting plans I've got for tomorrow! I'm going to be on TV, Mark! In widescreen! In high definition! In 3D! I bet you can't wait!

Au revoir!


*Terrible mixed metaphor, I know Mark. A moulinexed metaphor! This sort of thing would never happen with Sue around, would it?

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

16 November 2011. Letter 54

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 16/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 13 minutes.

Hey there, Mark and Sue! Swinging down the track so fancy free! Nobody you meet could ever see the loneliness inside you!

Sorry. You know how you get the last song you hear before you leave the house in the morning stuck in your head for the rest of the day? Well I've got that today. Blame Chris Evans, Mark! Blame Radio 2! Blame the New Seekers and their catchy ode to the sadness inherent behind the sixties' dream! Blame the fact the New Seekers were always a poor man's Mamas and Papas, Mark! Georgy Girl - it's a tune, undoubtedly, but it ain't California Dreamin' is it? And, if I'm going to be brutally honest with you, Mark, I actually prefer the original Coke advert version of I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing, rather than the New Seekers' million-selling 1971 version.

Does that shock you?

Never let it be said that I'm frightened of controversy, Mark! Never let it be said that I'm unafraid to address the important issues head on, square-shouldered, straight-backed, stiff-legged and jazz-handed!

Which brings me neatly to... hang on! Wait up! Hold the wedding! Sue! You've gone on your holidays again!

Again, Sue? Once more? Encore une fois? Another fortnight off? Goodness me, you do alright don't you? You lucky thing, Sue!

Where have you jetted off to this time? Chasing the winter sun, are we? Or is it all about the snowy slopes and the apres ski? Have you gone on the piste, Sue? Are you on the piste right now? I envy you, Sue! Out in Interlaken in your salopettes and your Ugg boots! Gazing across clear alpine vistas in your bobble hat and mitts! It's a wonderful image, Sue, and one that I'm sure both Mark and I will bring to mind to help cheer us through the drab and drizzle, the gloom and grey and cloying chill of mid November in middle England...

Hang on (again)! Wait up (again)! Hold the wedding (again)! Sue! What's this?

You're away "from Saturday 17 September until Tuesday 3 October"? What fresh confusion do you bring us? What the Gregorian is going on? Sue! Dude! Saturday 17 September was two months ago! Tuesday 3 October, Sue, was even longer ago. Tuesday 3 October was back in 2006!

Have you discovered the secret of time-travel, Sue? Has that monkey business in CERN gone and displaced the space-time continuum and somehow sent you on a holiday that lasts five years backwards? And how does that work in terms of using up or accruing allotted time off work?

These are all questions that need answers, Sue! We need enlightenment! You need to know which direction through time and space you're traveling! Are you due back in work in a fortnight, or five years ago? I'm prepared to call on the services of Professor Brian Cox if needs be, Sue. I can get Patrick Moore on speed-dial! Answers must be forthcoming!

But anyway. I digress. (Again! All this digression, Mark! And me such a stickler for concise, precise, to the point prose! Whodathunkit!)

We're not here to talk about Sue's holidays in the fourth dimension, are we? (Though it does remind me of a good joke: What did the hungry clock do, Mark? It went back four seconds! No? Four seconds? Hungry? No? Yes I know it's a clock, Mark, that's the point! Four seconds! Well yes, obviously clocks don't actually get hungry as such, not having stomachs or intestinal tracts or indeed sentience... but let's just say for argument's sake they did get hungry, then... oh, forget it.)

We're here to talk about trains! We're only talking at all because of your trains! If it's not love, as George Papandreou, former Prime Minister of Greece and one-time bassist with seminal Mancunian indie band The Smiths, put it, then it's the trains that will bring us together. And so they have, Mark! (If only old George had been so perceptive in matters of economic policy then perhaps Monsieur Sarkozy and Frau Merkel wouldn't have been so horrid to him over that whole unfortunate Euro business.)

I'm writing to you because you're the Managing Director of First Great Western! And I'm writing to you because I'm a customer of First Great Western! And you're writing back for exactly the same reasons! It's, like, totally symbiotic, bro! I give you a large amount of money every month, you provide me with an advertised train service. I pays my cash, I gets my goods - and everyone with even the most basic understanding of the writings of John Maynard Keynes agrees that it's a system that works beautifully!

The only problem is, Mark, I feel you're not keeping your end of the bargain up. I'm doing my bit, alright! There I am, keen as mustard every month, plastic in hand and pin number ready, shelling out the readies for the railways... and not getting what I'm paying for.

Mark! I'm not getting what I'm paying for! Why aren't I getting what I'm paying for? How can you get away with not giving me what I've already paid for?

Is it a money thing, Mark? Are you feeling the pinch? Are we all in it together, as the multimillionaire old-Etonians of the Cabinet like to reassure the one million young people unable to get paying work at the moment? Is First Group struggling to find the filthies to kick their franchise into shape? I understand, Mark. I fully under...

Hang on (again again)! Wait up (again again)! Hold the wedding (again again)! Mark! What's this?

I read in my downmarket broadsheet rag this morning (the Super Soaraway inexplicably missed the story, Mark) that First Group are not feeling the pinch at all! Au contraire, as they say in Addis Ababa! I read that First Group's pre-tax profits have risen 56 per cent! To £127.8 million! In a downturn! In a recession! During a time of acute financial crisis!

Crikey, Mark! And that's before the planned nine per cent ticket price rises due in January! You boys are laughing! You're rolling in it! I don't know why you're not making trains out of gold, or ivory, or moon-rock! You can afford it! No wonder Sue can take another holiday - it's all gravy round First Group's way! It's all truffle gravy served in gravy boats of solid Kryptonite!

But given that... one glaring question does remain. If profits are up and prices are rising and forecasts are bright... why on earth can't you get the trains to run on time? These are the good times, Mark! Spend a little to make a little! You've got to - what's that word? Invest! Why not invest, Mark! Make your below-standard service at least... standard!

Or, to put it another way - why not give me what I'm paying you to give me? Why not stop trousering enormous profits and start treating your paying customers with a little respect?

Sorry, Mark. Do I sound a little cross? I am a little cross, dude! Nothing personal, like - but for goodness sake, Mark! One hundred and twenty seven point eight million pounds profit and you can't even run a train on time? Seriously?

Right. I'm off to listen to the New Seekers 1974 hit: You Won't Find Another Fool Like Me. Much underrated tune, between you and me.

Au revoir!


Sue's away. Again?

I am out of the office until 21/11/2011.

I am on holiday from Saturday 17 September until Tuesday 3 October.
Thank you. Sue

Note: This is an automated response to your message "Seven minutes" sent
on 14/11/2011 17:05:14.

This is the only notification you will receive while this person is away.

A reply from Mark!

Dear Dom

Thank you for your email and I am sorry for the delay on Friday.

Thames Valley police received a report from a member of the public that they had seen a lorry strike the railway bridge at Langley and because of the safety implications, the line was closed until the bridge had been examined for any damage. Even though this was done quite quickly, it caused us a considerable level of disruption and I apologise that our 19:22 was one of the trains affected.

Kind regards


Monday, 14 November 2011

11 November 2011. Letter 53

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 19.22 FGW service from Paddington to Oxford, 11/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: seven minutes.

Wotcha Mark! What up Sue?

I must confess, meine kleine knockwursts, that I'm a touch disappointed. Last week was a good week! It was such a good week! We'd got all the way through to Friday evening with only Monday's delay blotting an otherwise utterly clean escutcheon! (Mark, you may need to explain that reference to Sue: what trips off the tongue to us classically-educated folk does not come so easily to the more street-smart Director of Communications. You can't blame her for that, Mark!)

Anyway - my point is that, right up until the usual scramble and dash for the 19.22, the Friday night take-no-prisoners and kill-all-hippes chicken run down Platform 3, you were doing okay. Leaving aside the fact that last week I actually caught two less trains than usual (you know that swanky black tie do I mentioned? The one with the dinner, and the drinking? The one with the awards, and the stripping hula girls, and the dancing horses? The one with the dwarf-tossing and the knife-throwing and the fire-eating?* That's right! That's the one! Well I stayed over in London that night, Mark. I was exhausted after all that excitement. I crashed out and curled up on my brother's sofa, Sue! I woke up in the clothes I comatosed-out in. I was, as they were far too polite to say in work the next day, a minging disgrace at my desk Wednesday morning. But I digress...) - leaving aside those two less trains, it was still a pretty good tally for the week.

And then, as so often happens when things seem to be going well, things stopped going well.

We dillied and dallied, Mark! We dallied and dilled, Sue! We lost our way and didn't know where to roam! And, alas, with the rising of the moon and under drizzles from the darkening skies, we pulled into Oxford a full seven minutes behind schedule.

It's been worse, Mark. Of course it's been worse! God knows you know I know you know Sue knows we all know it's been worse! But nevertheless, seven minutes is time enough. Seven minutes is time enough to change the world, Sue! And the world is changing so fast that I can't help thinking that seven minutes out of the action is time enough to miss something vital, something game-changing, something epoch-defining!

I don't want to miss the defining moment of my epoch, Mark! I would be gutted if that happened! I'd be sick as a parrot! Literally! (Have you ever seen a parrot be sick, Sue? It's not pretty. It's pretty darn unpretty. It's an awful mess of green feathers and squawking and pieces of what it ate. Truth be told, Mark, a sick parrot is a bird best avoided altogether.)

Just consider - it took less than seven minutes for Napoleon to defeat Wellington at the battle of Peterloo. Defining moment in the 13th century, that was.

It took less than seven minutes for Lord Botham to score his famous hat trick against Australia - thus winning us the Ashes and defining the 2001 rugby world cup.

It took less than seven minutes for Robert Stephenson to be conceived, Mark. And, in one of those wonderful quirks of history that keep scholars like me captivated, it also took less than seven minutes, exactly seven years later, for the young Bobby to draw (on a crayon, on his parent's kitchen wall) the first prototype for what would become The Rocket: the first ever train. Makes you humble, doesn't it? Especially considering he went on to write Treasure Island, the first long-form novel to actually feature a sick parrot.

So what moments in time do you think we missed on Friday, Mark? What happened in those seven minutes? The collapse of the European financial system? The fall of the free British press? The end of another Middle-Eastern regime? The resignation of a democratically-elected Prime Minister of Italy and his subsequent replacement by an entirely non-elected official appointed by a group of people looking after their own interests who can't trust anything so shaky as "democracy" to come up with a suitable Prime Minister? The exit of Frankie from X Factor?

Could any of these define our era, Mark? Or will I remember these days only for the time I spent staring at my reflection in a train window? Food for thought, Mark! And I don't know about you, but I'm hungry! I could eat a horse!

Au revoir!


*I exaggerate, of course. There were no stripping hula girls. What kind of decadent parties do you think I attend? I'll have you know I'm a moral man, Mark! My reaction upon seeing a stripping hula girl would be to immediately stand up, deliver a stiff lecture on the exploitation of women by a male-dominated, phallically-driven society, admonish them severely for letting down the sisterhood by pandering to the above, button up my trousers with as much dignity as I could muster and walk right out of there.

Did I say trousers? I meant jacket. Of course I meant jacket. I would button up my jacket. Why on earth would the buttons of my trousers be undone!

A short but beautifully formed message from Mark

It did feel slow! Brilliantly put!

Dear Dom

Thank you for the email and I am sorry for Mondays delay to our 08:06 service from Oxford to Paddington.

This was caused when a train, which had left the depot late, ran ahead of the 08:06, holding it up. This is why it felt so slow, and I know how frustrating this must have been.

I hope you will accept my apologies.

Kind regards

Mark Hopwood
Managing Director

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

7 November 2011. Letter 52

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 7/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 12 minutes.

Mark! Sue! What's movin'? What's groovin'? What's tootin'?

I feel it's been a while. It's been a while, dudes! What have you been up to? What's been going down in First Great Western town? Plenty, I hope. Lots and lots! It's good to keep busy, Mark. The devil makes work for idle hands, Sue. Don't stop movin', as inexplicably-monikered poptastic 90s septet S Club 7 urged, to the funky, funky beat.

(I once interviewed S Club 7, Sue. No, really! They were great! I loved them, as it happens. Fat Paul, especially. He was totally cool. He had a cool T-shirt. And don't even start me on my Rachel from S Club 7 anecdote! Suffice to say we connected, Sue. There was... chemistry. We spoke each other's unspoken language. Fluently. If things had been different, Sue, I reckon Rachel from S Club 7 could even have had a shot at becoming a former Mrs Utton. And now... well the poor girl's missed her chance. Anyway, I digress. I once interviewed S Club 7, Sue, and I asked them what the S stood for. Do you want to know what they said? They said it stands for whatever I want it to. Or nothing at all. It's just a letter, they said. There's a certain genius to that, Sue, don't you think? A certain magnificent arrogance to it. It's communicating well outside the rules of communication, is that! It's off-piste communicating!)

Anyway - enough pop nostalgia! We're not here to hear tales of how erstwhile chart puppets may or may not have hankered after a bit of extra interview time (although I could tell you a tale about Baby Spice if we were). We're here to talk about trains.

Trains, trains, trains. Trains, Mark! I can't stand the trains! At my window! Bringing back sweet memories! (Okay, that didn't really work, but I've been wanting to reference that song for about four months now. Indulge me, Mark.) Trains, trains, trains. Here come the trains again! Falling on my head like a memory! Falling on my head like a new emotion... alright. Point taken. No more rain/train songs.

(It's a trainy night in Paddington! Seems like it's training all over the world!)

My train on Monday morning was slooooow, Sue! It was slow like treacle. It was so slow and dull and time-wastingly tedious, that it's taken me until Wednesday to even summon up the enthusiasm to tell you how slow and tedious it was.

Does that make me remiss, Mark? Does it make me look sloppy, Sue? Perhaps so. Maybe it does. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me? Will you let me make it up to you? Will you let me share with you a few of the things I've learned, while failing to be bothered to write to you this week?

You will? Oh goody! Let's drink from the fount of knowledge, Sue! Better than that - let's skinny dip in the fount of knowledge! Let's shed our inhibitions, let's slough off our slacks and plunge headfirst into the fount of knowledge! Let's do it!




Let me think.

I can't think of anything, Mark! I'm stumped, Sue! The truth of the matter is, I'm feeling a little too delicate today to dredge up what new knowledge I've gleaned* and share it with the group. I went out last night, you see. I went deep into the throbbing heart of London's fashionable Central London, I attended a deeply fashionable party there, I wore a black tie (you should have seen me, Sue!) and I indulged myself fully of all the many and bountiful bounties that were laid out before me. And as a result, today I'm feeling a little... delicate. Washed out. Hung up to dry and ironed flat. I'm living proof of the old Sardinian maxim: "Una notte come un leone, cinque giorni come i coglioni".

It's a bit rude in the literal translation, Sue, and I wouldn't wish to make a lady blush (at least - not accidentally) so suffice to say it roughly declares that if you live one night as a lion, you will spend five days as, ahem, something rather less savoury. But because it's in Italian, despite being a bit filthy, it nevertheless sounds beautiful, no?

Of course it does! Hey! Guess what! That reminds me of something I did learn this week! Something involving trains! Result!

So you know how when you go to Italy, Mark, it seems that every tiny village and one-donkey-hamlet boasts a magnificent train station? Something grand in the classical style? Something eminently worthy of an Empire? Well that, my history-loving chums, is because old Benito Mussolini (a rather unsavoury character in charge of the country back in the middle of the last century, Sue - came to an unpleasant lamppost-related end, best not to delve too deep into the whys and wherefores) was obsessed with trains. He lived and breathed trains! He believed that the mark of a powerful nation was a top-level train service. He wanted every citizen to have access to a first-rate train station, from which they could catch a first-rate train. That, he believed, was the key to a successful Empire.

He literally made the trains run on time, Mark! Can you imagine that? Can you actually imagine such a thing?

I know! Me neither! No wonder they hanged him in the end.

Au revoir!


*Is that a mixed metaphor, Sue? Can one dredge and glean? Can one glean anything from a dredge? What does glean mean, anyway? And what kind of person dredges for anything, anyway? Has anything pleasant ever been found through dredgery? Do feel free to write back and let me know, Sue. I'd love to hear from you again!

Here's... Marky!

Dear Dom,

Thank you for your emails and my apologies for all the delays.

On Thursday there was a very unfortunate incident at Tilehurst. We are always grateful for our customers understanding during these type of situations but I know that the disruption which follows is no less frustrating. Events like these can be very difficult to manage but I recognise we need to offer a better service.

On Friday an earlier signal problem caused delays throughout the afternoon and evening. On Monday a different signal problem delayed the 08:06 service's arrival into Oxford and despite our best efforts, we could not catch up. On Tuesday, a combination of a late opening signal box and a problem with a train at the depot meant we fell significantly behind schedule.

I am very aware of how many contacts we've had from you recently and there have been too many problems. Not all, but in the main these have been down to the infrastructure. Network Rail have been working hard to address these but more needs to be done. The Office of Rail Regulation have in fact recently issued a formal warning to NR. We are keen to discuss with them their plans to recover their performance across our Network and we'll of course work with them in support.

Kind regards


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

1 November 2011. Letter 51

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 1/11/11. Amount of my day wasted: 23 minutes.

Mark! Sue! How do you do? What's the talk of the track? What's the rabbit on the railroads? What's firing up the First Great Western team today?

Is it the trains again, Mark? Those troublesome trains! Those confounded carriages and luckless locomotives! Why can't they do what they're supposed to do, Mark? What is their problem, Sue?

This week, friends, it seems that those trains are going for the full-house. The grand slam. The shanghai. They're having a tilt at the title! A shot at the champ! We've been delayed every day this week, my time-defying chums! We've trundled in tiredly and tardily over and over and over - just like, in fact, and in the words of cavernously-coated dance music odd-bods Hot Chip, a monkey with a miniature cymbal. Exactly like that!

It's almost as if it's getting deliberate now Mark! It could drive a man to paranoia, these constant delays! (Am I getting paranoid, Sue? Are they out to get me? I once phoned a paranoia hotline, you know - the man asked me: "how the hell did you get this number?" I once asked an assistant in Waterstones if they had any books on paranoia - she looked around and whispered: "they're behind you...")

Am I getting paranoid? It's almost as if you'd stopped trying to make the trains run on time and instead were channeling all of your considerable energies into making sure the trains run late!

What fresh madness would that be, Sue! What peculiar perversion of the natural order would that represent, Mark? Crazy! Crazy like a coconut! Like a paranoid coconut!

What on earth could inspire such silliness, Sue? Please don't tell me you're doing it on my account! Please don't tell me this has become a war of attrition - you with your shambolic service on one side, me with my ludicrous metaphors and admittedly peerless ability to pick uncannily apposite pop music lyrics at will to illustrate a point on the other? Please don't tell me you're trying to grind me down, wear me out, bore me into submission? Please don't let it be that you plan on making First Great Western trains so relentlessly, remorselessly, unremittingly behind schedule that I simply run out of steam? (Steam! See what I did there, Sue! Steam! Because trains used to run on steam! It's a train reference! Oh suit yourself, then.)

Mark, Sue: I beg of you - don't go to war! The first casualty of war is innocence! I don't want to lose my innocence, Sue! I want to stay pure and whole and untouched by the wandering hands and leery looks of cynicism! I don't want to become paranoid!

And, most of all, I don't want those other innocents to suffer, Mark. Those other passengers, the ones who don't write letters to you, the ones who simply sit there and silently seethe, day after day, delay after delay, as you waste their precious time. They don't deserve this, Mark! (I don't deserve it either, of course.)

Likewise your hardworking First Great Western staff - don't let them suffer the collateral damage of our correspondence, Sue! In all truthfulness, in all honesty, with my hand on my heart and my head in my hands (technically I realise that would make my head on my heart, but you know what I mean), I have no problem with the First Great Western staff I meet every day. In fact, lots of the ones I encounter are lovely. The lady with the drink trolley, the man who checks the tickets, a rather brilliant train manager chap called Patrick in the mornings who has the best, most laid-back voice ever. Another train manager man who likes to tell jokes about the Botley kebab van as we pull into Oxford. He's ace, Mark! Genuinely. I would be properly upset if he ever felt my complaints against you (and you too, Sue! Please don't think I'm forgetting you!) extended to disgruntlement with him. They don't. I like him. And he does his job brilliantly. Pretty much all of them do.

Even that Jo chick who runs your twitter feed - she's great, Sue! She consoled me when I failed to get Stone Roses tickets! She communicated, Sue! She communicated a dream! She's the one having to sit there taking the twitter-rap for your poor service... and she does it cheerfully. And did I mention she consoled me when I failed to get Stone Roses tickets? I'm a little bit in love with Jo who mans (womans?) your twitter feed. She's alright by me!

No, Mark. My problem is not with any of these people. The way I see it, the fault lies at the top. I'm right, aren't I? Of course I am!

So please don't make me paranoid, or I'll start feeling guilty for all these others, these innocents, these people just trying to get to work or get home from work, or do their jobs even as they are forced to become the unhappy representatives for the shortcomings of those paying their wages. And that wouldn't be nice for anyone, would it?

So. Anyway. Here we are again. Twenty-three minutes! On Tuesday morning, the train puttered into Paddington 23 minutes late. To be fair, we'd started out late. We began behind schedule. We left Oxford after our advertised time because, as our train manager informed us, we were late arriving into Oxford. Fair enough. And then we got stuck behind the old stopping train as far as Didcot. And then - well I'm not sure what happened after then, but we lost more time between Didcot and Reading. And then... oh, I can't be bothered, Mark. It was boring then and it's boring now. Suffice to say the whole boring business took 23 minutes longer than I'd paid for or was promised.

And also 23 minutes longer than any of the other people on that train had paid for or were promised. And also 23 minutes longer than any of the people working on that train were expecting. Nobody was happy. In fact, I'd go so far as to say we were unhappy. You made us unhappy, Mark! That's not nice, is it?

Oh dear. In the space of a mere 1000 words or so you've made me both paranoid and unhappy! (And late for work.) We need to address this situation! We need some good news and we need some fast!

I know! What could be better than the beginning of a new life? What could be more wondrous than the birth of a baby? And I read in my Super Soaraway today, Sue, that our dear old Hugh Grant, bumbling actor extraordinaire and the man known in thespian circles as "the chameleon" for his uncanny ability to transform himself into any role demanded, has become a proud Daddy again! How lovely, Mark! How super, Sue! (I have no idea why he didn't shout the news from the rooftops the moment he found out he'd impregnated his neighbour, Mark, but there you go. Different strokes and all that. There's nowt so queer as acting folk.)

And you know what's even better? It only turns out the little Grantling is the seven billionth child on the planet!* The Golden Child who will rescue humanity from the grip of the Matrix! Hoopla!

That reminds me: I'll tell you what I don't understand, Sue. (Correction: I'll tell you one of the many thousands of things I don't understand.) All this fuss over the fact there's now seven billion of us. It should be a good thing, right? The more the merrier! The way I see it, Mark, I like people, people are brilliant - I'm a person myself! And therefore, I want there to be more people! Every new person born is a victory for the human race, right? Let's get as many people on this here planet as possible! Let's make the human race the best race there is!

I mean, I'd prefer it if there were a few less people on my train most evenings, Mark, obviously - but that's not the people's fault, is it? You can't blame overcrowding on the fact that there are more people about. You have to blame it on the fact the trains aren't big enough or fast enough or frequent enough to cope with all the people. Don't blame the people, Mark! Blame the service! Or if you must blame someone, blame the man running the service, right?

Right! Great! Hey, guess what? I'm in a good mood again! Alright! Mark, Sue: you two have a great day now - and I'll see you again tomorrow!

Au revoir


*This may not strictly be true. But then, who's actually counting? And just so long as someone rescues humanity from the Matrix, then I'm really not bothered whether it's the seven billionth child or not, to be honest.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

31 October 2011. Letter 50

Dear Mark and Sue

Re: 08.06 FGW service from Oxford to Paddington, 31/10/11. Amount of my day wasted: 12 minutes.

Mark! Sue! What's the score? What's the Bobby Moore? Are we winning yet? Are we getting hammered at home? Are we being humiliated in our own backyard? Are our own fans streaming for the exits well before the final whistle? Can we not at least salvage a scrappy point from this game? Shall we be hauled off at half time? Will it be an early bath for the three of us?

Today, my locomotive-loving chums, I'm feeling mostly penitent. I feel humble. I'm, like, totally lowly! I feel... worthless and weak, Mark. I feel... naked, Sue. Wide-eyed and blank-minded. Blank-eyed and wide open. And minded to proclaim my own shortcomings.

I know, Mark. No need to say it Sue: I know. I can scarce believe it myself. I can barely bear to bring it up and blurt it out. But I must. On this, the occasion of my 50th letter to you, my Golden Jubilee of letters to you, I must come clean. There's no easy way to say it, lads: I made a mistake.

Two mistakes! I made two mistakes! My agonies are compounded, Mark! My sorrows stack up, Sue! And so I stand here naked and ashamed before you. Look at me! Fixate upon that image! Get it clear in your minds as I make my confession.

Here goes. Deep breath. (You still imagining me naked and ashamed?* Good. I'll continue.)

Dudes. In yesterday's letter I incorrectly billed Friday's delayed journey as being from Paddington to Paddington! Thwack! (That's the sound of me self-flagellating, by the way. Ouch!) And as if that wasn't shameful enough, in the same letter, in the same sentence, I incorrectly described the delayed train in question as being the 19.21! Thwack! (More self-flagellation.) When of course there's no such train! Thwack! I meant the 19.22! Thwack! To Oxford! Thwack! Oh, the shame! The shame! Thwack thwack! Please sir may I have another! Thwack thwack thwackety thwack!

Sue: forgive me. My communication skills have been found wanting. It was below-par communicating. It's certainly not the kind of communicating you would encourage in the First Great Western Communications Hub, of that I'm convinced.

The thing is, my petites pedantiques, despite my self-flagellation, I feel I should make a case for the defence. You see, it was all Network Rail's fault.

Oh, not really! It was my fault alone. But, to be fair, Mark, I write these letters in a blur of emotion and a whirl of passion. It was only a matter of time before I made a mistake. I sit here, on your mostly motionless or occasionally creeping trains, scowling at the screen of my phone, jabbing at the display with one furious finger, unleashing a torrent of wild rapture, trying to get it all down in a letter to you before I lose my tenuous grip on my emotions altogether.

These letters, Mark, they're a firestorm! They're a firestorm snowballing out of control! I'm like Steve McQueen in Towering Inferno, Sue! I'm exactly like Steve McQueen in Towering Inferno, racing through the burning building (so imagine: the building is your shambolic train service, Mark, the flames are my letters, and I'm Steve McQueen, trying to keep control of the flames and get out before the whole building collapses altogether. Good metaphor, eh? No? Really? Oh. Well can I at least still be Steve McQueen? I want to be Steve McQueen!).

What was I saying? Oh yes. These letters! They're written in a frenzy, Sue! Fifty of them! Fifty letters written in a frenzy! Who can blame me for the odd mistake? I try to say what i mean and I choke! I try to write away and I stumble!

We all make mistakes, Mark - Lord knows you're aware of that. But let me make a solemn promise to you both. Let me swear an oath. I started writing these letters with the express and focused intention of wasting your time, just as you waste mine. Not only to do that, but to waste a corresponding amount of your time. Not a moment more, Mark. Not a second less, Sue. Distracting you with unnecessary factual errors concerning the destination and departure times of the trains that are wasting my time in the first place doesn't do any of us any favours!

From now on, I shall try not to make any silly mistakes in my letters - no matter how fired up I am, no matter how boiling my blood may be and how rampant the flames of my ardour. I shall be cool, Sue. I shall be calm. Dispassionate. I shall be like... Steve McQueen in the Great Escape! I shall be the Cooler King! Watch me bounce my baseball!

And in return... it would be lovely if you chaps also tried a bit harder? Whaddyasay? I was 12 minutes delayed on the way in to London on Monday morning, Mark. Wouldn't it be great if that wasn't to happen again?

Au revoir!


*Not literally naked! Good heavens! I hope you weren't imagining me literally naked! I meant metaphorically, or figuratively, or symbolically naked! Imagining me literally naked would never do! Such a thing would be most upsetting for all concerned! It would have you spluttering out your tea, Mark! It would have you choking on your Hobnobs, Sue! I blush at the very idea!